An Interview on the Theatrefolk Podcast on Devising and Physical Theatre

In August I spoke to Lindsay Price from Theatrefolk, a Canadian-based website which is absolutely packed with resources for drama teachers. (If you’ve never had a look, go there now.)

Lindsay not only managed to ask some great questions that helped me transport myself to many years ago, when I used to teach physical theatre, but she’s also included a transcript of the interview in the blog post, which means, if you want to find out what we talked about right now but you’re not in a place where you can switch on your audio, you can have a read.

I loved that Lindsay picked up on my obsession with allowing people to take risks and make mistakes – her introduction is great, reminding us that we should celebrate failure during the devising process, hopefully it’s just taking us a little bit closer to what we want to create.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should celebrate people making mistakes because they’re careless, or because they just don’t care. I’m talking about congratulating those that take risks, those that try something new, those that say, “You know what, I’m going to try this and if I feel clumsy, or I feel stupid or if I just think, oops, that was the wrong choice,I’ll just stop, think about why it didn’t work and get on with the next option.”

Picture from the Theatrefolk website.

Lindsay mentions that she uses the term “collective creation” which I find much more interesting than “Devising”. Can we call it this in the British curriculum, please?

We talk about how the experience of devising goes way beyond creating a piece of theatre. The pride that comes with completing a piece, the responsibility we need to take to create it. The importance of “gathering” before we start to create, to allow things outside of our minds to influence our work .

Of course, in talking to someone else, we often discover things about ourselves, so I even got some insight into myself.

I learnt what my practice was about when I started teaching others.

So, if you have half an hour during which you can listen to the podcast, do go over to the Theatrefolk website. And while you’re listening, have a look at the range of resources that Lindsay and friends have to offer.

And also, notice how she pronounces my name, she gets it absolutely right!


Gandini Juggling On Tour

I recently received a message through this blog from Gandini Juggling who are currently touring a show. Even though I haven’t seen the company’s work before, I’m always happy to support those who reach out. So, here are some excerpts from the company’s press release. Of course, a show that blends maths and theatre is well worth a plug. And I wish them all the best!

Photo: Arnaud Stephenson
Photo: Arnaud Stephenson
4×4: Ephemeral Architectures is a co-production between Gandini Jugging, the National Centre for Circus Arts, Lighthouse Poole and La Brèche Pôle national des arts du cirque de Basse-Normandie / Cherbourg-Octeville.

A collaboration between two worlds; ballet and juggling.

Tracing pathways in space, four jugglers and four ballet dancers share a stage for the first time.

Photo: Arnaud Stephenson
Photo: Arnaud Stephenson

Both these formalised systems are ephemeral journeys through time and space, leaving an unseen trace, like an imaginary architecture. 4 x 4 is a celebration of where these paths meet. This seasons sees the sensational Gandini Juggling returning to its love affair with pure patterns and mathematics with 4×4. Following the international success of Smashed, this new work takes us on fleeting journeys through time and space in a unique dialogue between jugglers and ballet dancers.

Photo: Arnaud Stephenson
Photo: Arnaud Stephenson

4×4: Ephemeral Architects premiered at the 2015 London International Mime Festival at the Royal Opera House, where it received rave reviews. Directed by world renowned juggler Sean Gandini, choreographed by Royal Ballet dancer Ludovic Ondiviela, with original composition ‘Suspended opus 69’ by Nimrod Borenstein and performed live by exceptional young chamber ensemble Camerata Alma Viva. Incredible lighting design by Guy Hoars completes this sensational cross-art form experience.

4×4 Ephemeral Architectures Trailer from Gandini Juggling on Vimeo.

Building an Amphitheatre in Rural Spain

I’m happy to share with you a very special chat I had last week with Anna Kemp, from El dragón habla. I intended for the interview to be part of the new podcast Spain Uncovered, but as we mainly talked about theatre (mainly about devising and physical theatre!), I thought you might find it of interest.

There’s a cultural revolution going on in the South of Spain. In the small village of Laroles, in La Alpujarra, children and adults have discovered the joys of collaborating to make theatre. Not just that. They’ve bought into a style of acting that has very little to do with what they see on T.V. And more than that, the population and Mayor of Laroles are now behind an initiative which they’d never been able to visualise, without the help of an outsider: they’re turning a threshing circle into an amphitheatre. And if all that weren’t enough, the amphitheatre will host companies from outside of Granada and this year’s programme will include the appearance of well known Spanish personalities.

The theatre will open on 15th and 16th August. Before I continue trying to tell you the story of a project I can only but admire, I leave you with some pictures and the chat with Anna Kemp, the force behind this dream come true.

(You can find out more about the project by visiting the Un teatro entre todos website – in Spanish or English. And don’t forget that while the crowdfunding campaign is now over, you can still donate through their site.)






Keeping a Journal of Your Devising Process

The new edition of ‘Your Handy Companion to Devising and Physical Theatre’ has a section with tips on what students can include in their devising journals. I’ve also included some notes from one of my past productions, where the actors share how they approached their characters and the style of the piece.

However, as useful as I hope these notes can be, I’ve just stumbled across an even more useful and interesting example. A real journal from a student creating a devised piece, using physical theatre.

Danielle, over to you:

Composing Music for Devised Theatre

Many years ago (we’re talking pre-Facebook), I led the creation process of a piece called Goddess. It was a movement-based piece with very little text and so I felt like we needed to underscore most of the play. The only person I knew who could cope with the chaotic devising process and create something appropriate was my friend who goes by the name of HW Tamplin, who was based in Madrid. There was no Dropbox then, and I still had dial-up, so downloading the music was a long process. Still, we did it. HW also wrote some thoughts down about the process, back in 2006 and I have dug them out. Here they are. (You can find the link to the music at the end of this post.)

Composing the music for Goddess has been a great personal challenge: to convey the character of the myths’ protagonists, as I understood them, surrounded by the aura of an epoch, a different time, a world of mortals and Gods, of Goddesses; to find the balance between the physical work on stage and the sounds. Furthermore, with actors devising the play in another land – I was mortal, they were Gods.

Even before I read the first draft of the script I received an e-mail from Pilar saying “I hear lots of wind in this play”. Now that was a start of sorts, it led me to compose the track suitable-named Goddess1 without even knowing whether it would fit anywhere in the final play. This track is based on floaty synth-pad sounds, some string-based, some wind-based, with an improvised harmonic structure. The result was quite abstract and so I added a layer of a tuned percussive sound (similar to a vibraphone) that hinted towards a melody of some kind, but kept the track’s sort-of-abstract nature and feel. The track was then shelved for possible future use.

Having read the first draft of the play, I understood that each character in each myth would have to “carry” their own distinctive sound with them, their trademark, their instrument, their melody. For certain scenes, I could also hear choirs in my head, the voices of the Gods, Hera enraged, Hades ruling the Underworld, Narcissus’ fate. And now, the scenes, and their characters:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEros, the God of love, playful, is seen practicing with his bow and arrow, decided, self-assured, a definite, clear-cut melody in mind for him. Psyche, a mortal, sacrificed on top of a mountain for her beauty, emotional, at a loss to understand her fate, adrift…wind, abstract…that was it! Finally Goddess1 had a meaning! – it would become the music for the “flying” scene: Eros, now vulnerable, in love with Psyche, flying her away to their home. And so, I had hints of a melody for Eros, and a definite melancholy sound for Psyche. Three further tracks were required for this scene, the introductory Eros track (the moment to show-off his “melody”), the mountain track, and the final track, where Eros discovers Psyche trying to see his face. First to come to reality was the mountain track. It had to be a piece in crescendo to go with the voices of Eros and Psyche mounting to a climax (Eros hitting himself with an arrow), and so it starts with Psyche’s flute-like sound in a slow melody that is more distinct than its abstract form in the flying scene, and then Eros’ melody appears backed with a solo cello, different woodwind, brass and string instruments appear in turn, growing to a sudden dramatic end, with the sound of an arrow, “wooshing” through the air, a thump and the crying voice of the Gods (or are they seagulls!!). The final track to this scene was to become an exercise in sound editing and production, with no further composition (as Pilar put it, Goddess Revamped), only changing some of the content in Goddess1 into a short angry-sounding piece to go along with Eros’ anger, disillusion, a God in pain due his love’s betrayal. The starting track, Eros’ bravado so clear-cut in my mind, his melody already in existence, and yet such a pain to come up with the accompaniment; it took what seemed like years to become what it eventually became. Having arrived at a dead-end with what I had come up with, it wasn’t until after I scrapped the work completely, that it rapidly flourished in the jazzy form it now has, cool, self-assured, arrows flying all over the place, the perfect start for the play, the fun to counterbalance the underlying drama in the play.

echoEcho and Narcissus, what an unlikely pair!…Of course, Echo cannot have a melody of her own, her own voice cruelly taken away by Hera in the first part of this scene, but she has the ability to repeat what has just been said, perfectly, beautifully…musically inspiring. But let’s start with Hera, Goddess of Goddesses, enraged at Echo’s treachery, persecutes her with great might, pushes, shoves her, steals her voice, point blank deprivation…the thud of tuned timpani, a majestic organ, chaotic percussion, a choir of voices, the voice of the Goddess, precede the upbeat minimalist piano phrase that is Echo fleeing, the squeals as her voice is torn away. Hera, triumphant, fades away leaving Echo in silence. Then, in true transnational collaboration, my own little piece of stage devising – Echo and Narcissus MUST dance a waltz, a sweet piece of music to show Echo’s ability at repetition – an unforeseen circumstance for the playwrights, who had to re-envisage this part of the play. Narcissus’ deep low-pitch voice, a playful bassoon, mimicked by Echo’s high-pitched voice, initially thought for a clarinet, finally a flute, waltz away backed by the ever-dear sound of plucked and bow strings, how beautiful, how dreamy, how untrue, it was all in Echo’s imagination!!!…Then the crude reality of which Echo is mere spectator: Narcissus, in a tour de force with his own existence mirrored in the pool, the sound of water now echoing his now eerie melody, beckoning, a hint of voices, the sounds of fate, ‘twas written in the stars, Echo cries, Narcissus gives in…

underworldAnd now Persephone and the Underworld scene…tricky, especially as this part of the play was changed up to and including the performance; however, most of my initial musical ideas could be used as originally planned…Hades, lord of the Underworld, what a shady character, and Persephone, so easily drawn into his power play…a kidnap…the original idea with two high-pitched melodies, intertwined, fighting, screeching was scrapped because the results were too disturbing, and the strength of the physical piece it accompanied would have been lost, so we kept only the voice of Hades, dominating the scene with a single, slow, disturbing melody which worked perfectly…then, in comes death, destruction, Armageddon, the kidnap, distorted guitars, Hades’ melody double-speed, the luring voices, the lost souls, the Lord of the Underworld forces his love down with him, the sister’s nightmare, she falls, the lights red, flashing, the crash…they are in the Underworld, distortion, wind, water, dark sounds, confusion, an end or a beginning?…a brother, a sister, reunited, a waltz-like piece recapturing the melodies of all the characters in the previous dreams, Eros, Psyche, Narcissus and his Echo, washed away by synth-pads that lead to a happy ending…

The music for the curtain call at the end of the show was developed from the Eros piece at the beginning of the play using the same jazzy bass line at half the speed, and was originally envisaged as the music for the brother-sister scene. However, its circus-like nature, with its fast melody carried away by an accordion accompanied by variations on the melodies throughout the play, made it the perfect piece for a final piece, the curtain call, to remind us of Calderon de la Barca’s famous words, “For all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams.”

The music was composed using a stand-alone hardware sequencer, then the MIDI data was transferred to the computer in Gladiator Camp Studios, and the sounds arranged there for best results using sampled instruments and virtual synthesizers.

To listen to the music from Goddess, have a look at HW Tamplin’s Soundcloud profile


First Review for Your Handy Companion to Devising and Physical Theatre

Physical Theatre book review

It’s always daunting to get a review.

They are not just someone’s opinion about your work – they are someone’s PUBLIC opinion about your work. A review broadcasts certain aspects of your work to a wide audience. It can shape someone’s perception of you in an instant, even if they’ve never met you or seen your work.

My first experience of a show review was in Edinburgh in 1991. This was before the star system was being used broadly. I prefer the star-less review system: it makes you read a review, not just take in how many stars it deserves. “Amateur and limpish, but serious and dignified,” was the line I remember from the review of our Imperial College DramSoc production in Edinburgh, years before I decided to become a professional “theatre person”. I was a Biology student then, performing in my first ever (and in fact, my only) Alan Ayckbourn play “Mr.A’s Amazing Maze Plays”. I was playing Susie, the girl who went into Mr Accousticus’ house to look for all the sounds he’d stolen. With my fellow actor who played Neville, my dog, we had to go from one room to another, depending on the audience’s choice. Well, except for the preview, when we hadn’t quite finished rehearsing all the different locations and so the narrators had to trick the audience into choosing the locations we’d prepared.

I thought that review in The List was spot on. We were amateurs. But we also serious about what we were doing. I was 19 and had never had a drama lesson in my life. I could take “limpish”.

Being reviewed later on as a professional, mainly as part of a company I was trying to grow, was a little bit tougher. But you learn to read and move on. You celebrate the good times (Time Out Critic’s Choice!) and you bin away the bad times… Luckily, we could bin away then. Now with the internet, it’s slightly tougher to get over it.

Now by publishing books, I’m opening up myself to more public criticism. For me, an ok review that is well written is sometimes more welcome than a “five star review” that doesn’t say much about the book. Reviews are there to guide the reader, not just to say whether we liked it or not. That’s why I’m so happy at having come across a five-star review that I also think is spot on.

Thanks, reviewer, wherever you are!


What Games Can Teach Actors

I’m updating the Handy Companion and have just written a short introduction on using games. I wanted to share it with you.

The potential of teaching through games is often overlooked. Games are often thought of just as “warm-ups”. They are great warm-ups of course: they get us in the mood to work, they focus our attention and for students who have a timetable full of varied subjects, they are the fastest way of leaving everything else outside the Drama classroom door.

But the value of games doesn’t end there. We cannot underestimate the value of practising “play”. Practising taking risks, being in the moment, laughing at our failure when we get it wrong. The game provides a safe place where we can do all this, regardless of what it is we’re playing.

Some games teach us even more than that. The clapping circle (and it’s sound-including variations like ZipZapBoing) reminds us that the whole of our body needs to be energised when we perform; that eye contact is vital for working with others; that sometimes we can go with the flow but others we need to make a big offer. Grandmother’s footsteps teaches us discipline and focus and using suspension. Even a simple game of tag can teach us physical self-awareness: were you breathing or holding your breath when you were running away? It can also teach us spatial awareness and, why not, how to create suspense.

So challenge your students. Debrief your games so that they can see that they form part of an actor’s ongoing training, not just the first ten minutes of a session. Show them that there are aspects to acting that can be trained by going through these exercises over and over again. Remind them why what they’ll end up performing in, is called a Play.

Learning from the Masters: Peter Brook on Shakespeare

It is a very sad error for players and directors to show Lear in the first scene as a feeble old man already in his dotage.

How often do we forget as performers that the audience meets us in our first scene for the very first time?
They don’t know what we’re about to do, they don’t know how the play ends. (Well, I’m probably quite wrong in many cases, especially in a post that mentions Shakespeare, but in this case, the audience arrives ready to meet us at the beginning of the play, not the end.) It’s difficult not to judge a character we’re playing, especially if they’re about to embark on a journey as tumultuous as Lear’s.

When creating a character, you must have its arc very clear. Where are they emotionally at the beginning of their story and where are they at the end? You can almost work backwards. If, on a scale of 1 to 10, by the end of your piece they’re an unhappy 9, you can’t start their story with them being an 8, or else you will have almost nowhere to go. (Notice that I mention the beginning of their story, not the play, as you might be playing with structure and time.)

Any scene in Shakespeare can be vulgarised almost out of recognition with the wish to have a modern concept.

I’ve added this quote here as a reminder that we shouldn’t be obsessed with the idea of creating an “innovative” piece of theatre, of seeking something that’s never been done before. Because the truth is, that unless you’re using a piece of new technology, your idea’s been done before, somewhere else, by somebody else. If you discard an idea because it’s been done before, you’ll never get up and create. How many stories do you know that follow the structure girl-meets-boy, one of them likes the other but the other one is in love with someone else? And yet…

No matter what story you tell, it will be unique to your group. Don’t worry if something’s been done before (most art steals, erm, sorry, borrows, from other pieces of art), if it makes sense to your story, if your group is in love with the idea, use it, but make it yours. Don’t copy it. Don’t try to imitate but don’t be afraid of being inspired.

By the way, I did enjoy The Quality of Mercy. The book is a series of essays on Shakespeare, characterised by Brook’s no-nonsense style. Part memoir, part essay, it’s a swift read and I only wish there had been more!

Second Edition of Your Handy Companion to Devising and Physical Theatre

New Physical Theatre coverThe second edition of Your Handy Companion to Devising and Physical Theatre is now available directly from Lulu and also from Amazon.

This new edition has a section written especially for post-16 students on using feedback during the creation of your piece and keeping a record of your process. I’ve also included some short notes for teachers on how to use the five short plays in the classroom.

If you’re teaching physical theatre or if you are looking for physical theatre exercises to help you with your devised drama, take a look.


Devising a Play from a Novel

I’m in the middle of reading Kate Atkinson’s gripping novel Life After Life. The  novel is fascinating: it’s the story of a girl who keeps dying.

The book begins with short chapters and these keep getting longer and longer as the story develops. Each time the character dies, the author rewinds and we see a different chain of events which lead to her not dying – or rather, just dying later.

I was thinking that this would be a really interesting book to use as a stimulus. The novel is set in the early 20th century and tells the story of Ursula, a middle class girl living in London who’s still in the city when the Germans attack. I’m not going to continue with the plot because as a plot, it’s not that interesting (yet). However, the way the story is told, going backwards and forwards in time and from the main character’s mind to reality plus the variety of well-drawn characters that populate the novel make it a must-read.

The structure would make it an interesting book to adapt or take inspiration from. Having to re-tell a story where the events change ever so slightly but where the setting and characters are the same, is a creative exercise.

You would need to decide how much to change the dialogue, how much to change the details of the stories and whether the characters changed or not, depending on the event you were telling. Which mannerisms will you highlight for each character? Which actions? Will you highlight the pivotting moment in each scene, the moment where the character’s fate changes? How will you depict a character’s death? In the book, the author repeats “darkness fell” or at least mentions darkness as a way of telling us the character has died. How would you do it? How could you repeat again and again a moment, while keeping it fresh?

Once again, I hope this short post gives you a bit of inspiration when devising a play. And do read Kate Atkinson’s book, it’s quite unique.